Township, church clash over historic cemetery

Photo by Ron Leir/ The Rev. Miguel Ortiz and his wife Lily stand in the Revolutionary War-era cemetery. Ortiz says groundhogs are undermining graves by digging tunnels throughout the property.

By Ron Leir


A recent commotion at an historic burial ground containing the remains of American Revolutionary War veterans has stirred the sounds of battle anew.

At their Feb. 28 meeting, members of the township’s governing body sounded an alarm about conditions at the Belleville Reformed Church Cemetery – now owned by La Senda Antigua Church – at Main and Rutgers Sts.

Tom Grolimond, who chairs the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission, talked about seeing tree branches being cut down – some “more than 12 inches in diameter” – and, instead of using rope to ease the heavy limbs down to the ground, the cutters were allowing them to drop on the tombstones, with at least one dating from the 1700s “cracked in four pieces.”

When concern was voiced about possible damage to cemetery railings, Grolimond said the response from the cutters was that it didn’t matter because “they’re old.”

Township Attorney Tom Murphy said he’d talked with the police chief about the possibility of bringing criminal charges against the people doing the cutting under a “desecration statute,” but they concluded it would be tough to prove “purposeful action,” as required under the law.

“I don’t think the chief would feel comfortable issuing a complaint,” he added.

“Whether this is a crime or not, I don’t know,” Murphy said. “It’s more of an ‘I don’t care’ attitude.”

And that type of apparent unconcern, Murphy said, is an affront to the people buried at the site. “They endured terrific hardships to make us free,” he said.

Then, as if on cue, church pastor, the Rev. Miguel Ortiz, accompanied by his wife Lily, and Rutherford attorney Doug Mautner, entered the chambers.

Murphy reminded the church’s agents that town officials had met with them about six months ago about taking precautions with any cleanup of the cemetery grounds “which holds more bodies of Revolutionary War soldiers than any other cemetery in the United States.”

That’s why local officials were so upset when they learned about the seemingly haphazard tree cutting on the morning of Feb. 19, Murphy said. “That’s completely unacceptable to the township,” he said. “Disregard for the sanctity of that (property) represents the poorest type of citizenship…. We were just flabbergasted by the activities that occurred.”

Pastor Ortiz sought to assure the governing body that, “I meant no harm to the cemetery.”

The church’s intent, the pastor said, was simply to “pick up all the branches that were left hanging” from the storm that hit the area last October. Only one gravestone was damaged previously, he said. “We weren’t cutting trees. We have total respect for the graves. I just wanted to cut the hanging branches. One was about to hit the (bust) of George Washington.”

Fine, said Murphy, “but we still should be notified” about any further cemetery cleanups.

“The church is responsible for cleaning up the cemetery,” Ortiz said.

Murphy responded: “Had we been notified, I’m confident our Public Works Department would’ve gone on the grounds (to supervise and assist).”

Councilman-at-large Michael Nicosia interjected: “I can’t emphasize enough how much this means to the town. I make sure my children know how important it is. I would’ve taken precautions (to minimize possible damage). In future, I hope you reach out for help.”

Mayor Ray Kimble chimed in: “Call the Police Department in future. They know how to get in touch with our DPW.”

That’s right, Murphy added, Belleville’s government is ever vigilant. “We don’t disappear on the weekend,” he said.

Ortiz insisted he wasn’t taking the matter lightly. “I’m not a one-night stand,” he said.

And so, the skirmish ended in a truce.

Outside the chambers, church advocate Victor Bian, a history teacher at Passaic High School, said that he recognized the importance of the cemetery and that he has prepared an on-line historical appreciation of the site for fellow parishioners.

La Senda Antigua, a Pentecostal congregation, acquired the church and cemetery from another church about two years ago.

Grolimond said that the historic commission hopes to get the site declared an historic landmark. Among those buried there are 62 Revolutionary War soldiers and many of Belleville’s street names are derived from those dead, he said. The cemetery was originally associated with the old Dutch Reformed Church, whose original structure dates from 1697 and was rebuilt in 1850, he said.

A cemetery tablet ascribed to the Belleville Historical Society states that Josiah Hornblower (credited with inventing the first steam engine in America in the 1700s) is buried in the cemetery, along with many of Belleville’s early settlers.

When the historic commission next meets on March 15, it expects to have on hand Mark Alan Hewitt Architects, of Bernardsville, to provide architectural consulting services. The Township Council voted Feb. 28 to hire the Hewitt firm at a $10,000 a year cap.

In other business, the council granted a request by the Belleville Soccer Association to use the municipal stadium for its home games from March through June 2012 with fees waived. Kimble noted that of the 102 children registered with the league, 70 live in Belleville. Kimble asked league officials to coordinate with the township Recreation Dept. to avoid scheduling conflicts.

The council also appointed township assessor Kevin Esposito as interim township manager. He’ll temporarily replace current manager Victor Canning, who is leaving March 15 to take a similar position in Montville. Esposito’s salary adjustment has yet to be negotiated. The township is seeking a permanent replacement for Canning.

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